How I Got My Literary Agent
If you've done the impossible thing of writing an entire book, and now you hope to get it traditionally published, you most likely need a literary agent. The process of querying agents is a stage that many aspiring authors suffer through, and, unfortunately, many never get past.
I was very lucky to get an agent with my first book, but the process was certainly not an easy one. I’ve detailed my query journey below in hopes of helping those who are trying to figure out their next steps for getting their own agent, and also for those currently querying in order to remind them that there truly is HOPE for eventual success.
This is the breakdown of my query journey and some of the lessons I learned along the way.
Background Info That May (or May Not) Have Influenced My Experience
I began querying in January of 2021 and signed with my agent in December of that same year. This was a transitional time for querying because of the pandemic. Many authors have noted that querying pre-pandemic was easier and quicker. As of the time of this post, the query trenches feel very similar to how they were when I queried, but things change over time, so noting the timing of any given querying story is important.
My book is a YA contemporary fantasy and, while there is a diverse cast, the main characters are basically white and heteronormative. I specify this as I was told by many while I was querying that this would make it a tougher sell in the current market that is, rightly and thankfully, actively seeking more diverse books and authors. While YA Fantasy is a tough market to break into, so are most other genres, and I can flat-out confirm from my experience that I have had a smoother publication journey than most of my more marginalized peers.
I queried my manuscript at 118k which is at the high end for YA. Despite the length, it was still very fast-paced and tight. I'm sure the high count led to some auto-rejections, but it didn't stop me from signing. I'll be honest that I do not recommend anyone query YA above 100k these days if it can be avoided. Certainly not above 110k. But, I did get an agent, so it's not impossible. (I'll add that the edits I did with my agent before we went on submission included trimming the manuscript down to 110k and that some editors were okay with this length, but not all were.)
My query and manuscript were heavily workshopped (over 20 readers) and I was told by critique partners, who are experienced writers themselves, that it felt ready to be on shelves. I don't think everyone needs quite this many readers before querying, but I do think many people tend to query too early, and I believe that the amount of time I took to polish the manuscript is one of the reasons I managed to sign.
I did not get any bites for any online pitch contests or mentorship programs, though I tried for a few.
All of the agents I queried were well-researched and a good fit for my manuscript with either good sales or good mentorship. I didn't query any agency that doesn't routinely make 6 figure deals with big houses. (And I would add that after having been on submission and watching the journeys of many other writers, if I were to query again, I would be even more discerning than I was.)
I personalized about 1/3rd of my queries and almost all of my requests (except the 2 which came after my offer) came from personalized queries (but that could be a chicken/egg situation since I was a good fit for their MSWLs.)
Breakdown Of My Process and Requests
Before I even started querying, I researched my butt off about how to write a query letter and what agencies and agents to query. Then I wrote my query and workshopped it with other authors to shape it into something that might be any good.
I started with a small round of queries and received 1 partial and 1 full request that were both rejected quickly. Both rejections were complimentary and gave no actionable feedback. Those requests gave me a boost of confidence at the start, but they were followed by multiple rounds and many months of nothing. I was sending a lot of queries, made changes to my query package, and got almost entirely form rejections or no response at all.
I started to feel pretty grim, and if I hadn't had those two requests earlier on, I might have given up. But then I got another request from a 7 month old query from my first round. This was a shock because it was from one of the top agents in the industry who I truly never thought I'd have a chance with. (She held on to my full until I notified her of my offer to which she replied that she was still considering it, but she did ultimately reject.)
Getting that request gave me hope for my manuscript again, and I sent out another round of queries, all of which ended up as more form rejections. But I then got another request from one of my earlier rounds (the query was about 3 months old).
With two fulls out, it gave me new hope, so I queried most of the rest of my list...and more nothing. As more time passed and I was pretty sure both agents with my full were going to ghost me, I really thought I was at the end of the line. There were a few agents I was interested in who were closed that I was waiting to open, but I had mostly exhausted my list. I was getting close to a hundred queries, my request rate was dismal, so I started the mourning process. But I did occasionally throw out a query on a whim if I saw an interesting opportunity.
When I randomly came across a tweet from an assistant at a top agency with an MSWL that kind of fit my book, I decided I didn't have anything to lose. That whim of a query turned into a really quick request, followed by an equally quick offer. We had a call, and I requested a second call (which was extremely helpful, and I highly recommend it if you have any doubts.)
After nudging agents who had my query (most were pretty old queries at this point) that I had received an offer, 2 more requested fulls (one had been 65 days old at an agency where they say no response after 8 weeks is a no). Of those requests, one rejected and one ghosted. But I didn't care because I was thrilled with my original offer.
When I first signed with my agent, she was an assistant at a large agency, but she has since moved to become an associate agent at a boutique, and I made the move with her. Working with her has been a dream. She had the perfect editorial vision to help elevate my manuscript, and she made the process of submission smooth and empowering.
My Final Takeaways
A low request rate doesn't mean you won't get a good agent. I've heard people say things like "If you're not getting at least a 30% request rate then your query package isn't working." That ain't it, folks. Stretched out over a year and 96 queries, I got a total of 1 partial and 4 full requests, and I still landed on my feet.
Getting form rejections, on both queries and requests, is the norm these days and not an indication of the quality of your work. It used to be that personalized rejections were a sign that you were getting closer, but fewer agents are bothering to personalize any responses anymore, and this shouldn't be something that worries you.
Despite the oversaturated market, it is still possible to get representation for YA Fantasy, yes, even if it's not # ownvoices. That's not to say that it won't be an uphill battle. You need to have some kind of hook to make your premise stand out. If you don't, find one and change your book before you bother querying.
You can go from mourning what you're sure is the end of the line to new hope multiple times over the course of a journey, so don't let those moments spell the end for you.
Networking helps. As much as I hate social media and generally avoid it, I wouldn't have found my agent without it. At the time I queried her, her details weren't even available on the agency website. I wouldn't have even seen her tweet if I wasn't also part of an active community of other queriers who brought my attention to her in the first place. Community is key! Groups on Facebook and Discord can be gold.
There is a real advantage to reaching out to newer agents and assistants who have more time to take a chance on your work and give you individualized attention. (Though I personally would only recommend subbing to new agents if they are at agencies where they are guaranteed to get the resources and mentorship of the entire agency behind them and where they are not fending for themselves as is the case at some smaller agencies.)
But also don't consider anyone out of your reach. I got requests from some tippy top agents that literally boggled my mind despite the fact that plenty of "smaller fish" were rejecting left and right.
It truly only takes one yes. It can be hard to believe this in a sea of rejection and people claiming you need high request rates. It feels like if so many are rejecting, then the market must not want your book. But it really does just take one.
If you would like to see the query that worked for me, here it is:
I am seeking representation for my YA Contemporary Science Fantasy novel, GENESIS, and I'm excited to reach out to you specifically based on your interest in fun low fantasy YA that could be comped to Ninth House.
Seventeen-year-old Ada Castle is sent by her family to infiltrate The Genesis Institute, a hidden school run by the descendants of exiled Renaissance masters. At first, Ada––who has yet to master anything besides the art of falling for the wrong guys––has reservations about spying, even if it’s for a good cause. But, determined to prove herself to her family and their ancestral order, she agrees to go undercover to steal the secrets the exiles have been hoarding.
And Genesis is even better than the stories. With sustainable science, myths come to life, and hoverjoust tournaments, Ada starts to fall for the school...and maybe also for her frustratingly off-limits mentor. But when she attracts the suspicion of a dangerous (and dangerously hot) guard who is determined to expose her fresco of lies, she is forced to work alongside him to preserve her cover. This makes her question her mission as it becomes clear that her family’s supposedly noble intentions mask a grim connection to the exiles’ tragic history.
Now, Ada’s deception has put Genesis in imminent danger of discovery and destruction, and she must choose who to betray: the family she loves or the school that has helped her finally find herself.
Complete at 118,000 words, GENESIS merges an aesthetic blend of Renaissance, solarpunk, and Jewish lore in a love letter to art and creativity. It uses fantasy world-building to confront real-world issues in the vein of The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin and will appeal to fans of Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and The Shadowhunters Novels by Cassandra Clare. The full manuscript is currently being considered by other agencies.
I am an English teacher and live with my husband and toddler in New Jersey. I have an MSW from New York University and previously worked as a clinical social worker. Aspects of the GENESIS history and magic systems were inspired by the Jewish tradition and mythology with which I was raised.
Thank you for your consideration.
Here are some resources that I found useful when I was querying:
Query Tracker is the best way to find agents, see other's comments about them, and keep track of your query process. The free version is great, but the paid version is cheap and, in my opinion, worth every penny for the response timelines, reports, and sorting options that it provides. https://querytracker.net/
The Query Shark blog is a great read to see other author's queries critiqued by an agent for what works and what doesn't work. https://queryshark.blogspot.com/
This generator won't pop out a perfect query, but it can be a useful tool to help narrow down the most important information to include. https://www.querylettergenerator.com/
PubTips is an excellent forum to ask publishing questions and have your query critiqued by other authors. I also found it extremely helpful to critique other's queries as it helped me start to see what was and wasn't working in mine. https://www.reddit.com/r/PubTips/
Some agents will ask for a synopsis in addition to a query. This is really helpful for detailing how to write a synopsis. https://publishingcrawl.com/p/how-to-write-a-1-page-synopsis
Publishers Marketplace has an expensive monthly fee, but it can be useful short-term to see agent's sales and help identify who might be a good fit for your book. https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/
I have big news about my book coming soon, so make sure to sign up for updates below if you want the details!